Last year in the United States, four billion gallons of ethanol were produced from 1.43 billion bushels of corn (including kernels, stalks, leaves, cobs, husks). In comparison, the United States consumed about 140 billion gallons of gasoline. Due to farm subsidies, we have too much corn, so the government would love it if we could turn all that extra corn into gasoline, but when it comes to producing ethanol, there are much better plants out there.
In his 2006 State of the Union address, President Bush acknowledged the potential for switchgrass as a source of ethanol to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. Unlike corn, which is currently used for ethanol production, switchgrass can be grown on marginal soils, is useful as wildlife habitat, and requires little use of fertilizers, insecticides or irrigation.
Researcher Albert Kausch says, “Switchgrass is a native plant of the tall grass prairies. It grows 12 feet tall in one season and produces 10 tons of plant material an acre, more biomass per year than most other plants.” And because switchgrass is a perennial plant, it doesn’t require replanting year after year, which makes it less expensive to grow than corn.
Kausch worries about using corn to produce gas, partly because “?Some of the genes being engineered into corn to make it a better source of ethanol aren’t genes we want in the food chain?those genes could find their way into the corn that we eat.”
Ethanol is a form of alcohol that burns much more cleanly than gasoline, so it results in far lower emissions when used to power automobiles and other vehicles. Since a majority of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming come from transportation sources, Kausch believes that switching from gasoline to 100% ethanol is an important step toward halting climate change. He says, “It won’t entirely solve the problem, but it sure will help.”
Art credit: freeimages.co.uk
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